January 29, 2005

Soft Touch
Nancy Tousley Calgary Herald Spotlight

Soft Touch

Luanne Martineau finds beauty in the abject and offbeat

Luanne Martineau: Oikos, on view at TrepanierBaer Gallery through Feb. 5.

    If CSI pops into your head courtesy of Luanne Martineau’s Smoker while you’re standing in an art gallery, your guilty pleasures are not to blame.
    The messy red head of dreads and the intestinal shape of the sculpture’s fragmentary body, laid out on a shelf, conjure the accident scene or the autopsy room. Yet instead of being repellent, the gangly figure with the fat cigarette sticking out of what must be its mouth, is soft, tactile and inviting to the touch. Instead of shrinking from it, you lean over to examine the dreads and dangling braids and what could be a detached spine, like a row of embroidered eyes waiting for the hooks, running along the edge of a flap of skin.
    Made of raw wool, Smoker (2004) is intricately and decoratively detailed. Its material and colours are rich and warm. Despite the abject condition of its inside/outside form, it has an almost jaunty air. Did smoking do him in? Too much “blood” for that. The limp figure is tragicomic, like a beat up rag doll or a smashup in a cartoon.
    “It’s a redefinition that beauty can exist in the abject,” Martineau says. “They are not binaries. It was the same issue for me with abstraction and social realism. These are artificial kinds of divisions, I really see them as being fully meshed.”
    In an art practice that embraces both sculpture and drawing as independent mediums, Martineau seeks out the minor, the marginal and the overlooked. She renegotiates the issues around them and reclaims them. Until recently, an early newspaper comic, The Yellow Kid, with its cheerful tales of turn-of-the-century immigrant life in the tenements of New York, was a major source for drawings and sculpture that were steeped in social satire. Although her sources have changed, and her work of the past year has become figurative, the social satire remains. Her touchstones are artists Lee Bontecou, Eva Hesse, Louise Bourgeoise, and Philip Guston, with Mike Kelley in the background as an enabler.
    Martineau has a penchant for often biological visual and verbal puns and double entendres that operate on an almost subliminal level. The name of Lubber (2003), the large grey felt sculpture in her TrepanierBaer show, means “a big clumsy fellow” or “a clumsy seaman.” Given the penile protrusion at Lubber’s front end, a bit like the nozzle on a squeeze bottle, it’s a short mental hop from seaman to the “sound alike” synonym for seminal fluid.
    The 34-year-old artist, who lives in Victoria, laughs a throaty smoker’s laugh during our interview and jokes that her humour is base and vulgar. This, combined with her particular idea of beauty, which is bound up with her interests in textiles, embroidery and needlework, gives her work a wickedly provocative edge.
    Born in Saskatchewan in 1970, Martineau grew up in Saskatoon. She moved to Calgary to study at the Alberta College of Art and Design before going to the University of British Columbia, where she completed the master of fine arts degree in 1995. At ACAD in the early ’90s, she studied with Mary Scott, whose approach to materials opened doors for her to practices other than painting.
    “It just seemed so much more interesting to me to make form rather than depict form,” says Martineau. She has worked with wool for the past four years.
    Lately, she’s been best known for her drawings, panoramic marvels densely packed with tissue-thin collages of images traced from comic books, book illustrations and other pop culture sources. Through most of the 1990s, her work was a hybrid of abstraction and social realism, which in strict Modernist terms is a wedding of opposites. The drawings were built with the peripheral images surrounding figures in the source material, but Martineau left the figures out. Even so, she thinks about sculpture through drawing and the figurative work has grown out of the collage drawings.
    It was a drawing from a series on “utopias for people with problems” — Utopia for People with Breast Fixations and Mother Complexes — that led to Lubber. It’s the centrepiece of the TrepanierBaer show, Martineau’s first solo in a commercial gallery, and the beginning of a new body of work. After leaving out the figure for years, Martineau says, “Now I am imagining the body.” And, in this show, she is doing it in a particular context.
    Oikos, the exhibition’s title, melds the ideas of body and home. A Greek word, it translates roughly as “household management,” a term that updates home economics and domestic science, and refers to the structure and financial running of the household. Martineau speaks of “the body of home,” a metaphor for this gathering of five related figurative sculptures and six drawings that, among other things, plays on gender relationships and the politics of the body.
    Hybrid form, a central concept of her work, is the perfect vehicle for the theme. Lubber, with its pipe-like appendages and bulbous body, is a hybrid of industrial and organic forms that looks like a big stranded insect, improbably dotted with nine fuzzy brown breasts. Both menacing and maternal, and alluding to both milk and semen, Lubber is a strangely evolved, Kafkesque creature that might have lumbered up out of the id.
    But where Lubber is a complete figure, Smoker and the lusciously coloured Sweetie (2004) are a different breed. Smoker is a body as fragment, paralleled in the exhibition by Freezer (2004), an ink drawing of a torso, laying on a table under a naked lightbulb, with outstretched Popeye (or Bluto) arms, hands grabbing at the table, and a spine that ends in a key-like pelvic bone. By comparison with the collage drawings, the recent ones are highly simplified line drawings of single images that relate directly to the subjects of individual sculptures.
    Sweetie, made of red, bright yellow and orange wool and grey silk, seems to be falling out of her clothes and falling apart, dissolving even. At one end if the table sculpture an orange breast with a red nipple balloons out of a form that recalls a red hooded child’s jacket with which body parts like pink lips or labia get all mixed up. Martineau invokes Guston’s hoods, De Kooning’s misogynistic Woman paintings and a string of macho ’60s painters with the work’s colours and the way she handles the materials to refer to painting. Surrealism is another source for the hallucinogenic Sweetie, her two-part structure pointing directly to the doll sculptures of Hans Bellmer, a desirous misogynist par excellence.
    Valentino and Spaced (2004), the two wall sculptures in the show, are also fragmented bodies, but bodies that become synonymous with clothes. The funny Valentino (2004), a circle covered in black knitted wool with a sphincter-like turtleneck opposite a soft pink penile or intestinal projection at eight o’clock, hints at a certain ego-centric self-sufficiency. Its form mimics the flopped symbol for the male gender with the arrow pointing down instead of up.
    Spaced, on the other hand, which recalls an empty pair of panty hose with long connected legs, reads as a passive-aggressive female form with a gaping vagina. It recalls Lee Bontecou’s canvas constructions with their menacing openings. As underlying references, though, Duchamp’s famous urinal also springs to mind as do tribal totems and masks.
    Working by association, Martineau’s evocative, many layered images lead in several directions at once. The leads are not random, nor is her point of view simplistic. Her work is polymorphous, and formally and psychologically complex. While it is certainly feminist, it embraces ambiguity and contradiction. It talks back to art history. The big payoff, however, is that it gets at what makes us human.